Positive Signs in the D-Backs Rotation

From 2006 to 2009, the Arizona Diamondbacks pitching staff was one of the best in the Majors. Last season, however, the staff was in shambles, with Dan Haren’s trade the cherry on the sundae of what was a truly terrible season for Arizona hurlers. As Jack Moore touched on earlier today, the bullpen has pitched much better thus far, and while the rotation has overall been poor and it would be fantastic if Haren in the fold, there are positive signs from the starting rotation.

As of today, three sets of teammates reside in the top 15 in pitching WAR: Roy Halladay (1), Cole Hamels (5) and Cliff Lee (11); Haren (2) and Jered Weaver (4); and Daniel Hudson (10) and Ian Kennedy (13). Hudson in particular has been fantastic, though you wouldn’t know it from his ERA. Despite wearing a .335 BABIP — good for seventh worst among qualified pitchers — Hudson is sporting a 2.52 FIP and 65 FIP-, marks that are both in the top 11 in the Majors. He has done so by improving in a few ways. First, he has upped his ground ball count. He hasn’t suddenly morphed into Derek Lowe, but he has pulled his GB/FB ration to even. Second, he has had some extra life on his fastball, as Mike Podhorzer noted here. His K/9 is also up over last year, and the combination of more strikeouts and more ground balls has led to fewer home runs allowed. His walks have ticked up a bit as well, as has his WHIP, but if his BABIP stabilizes, his WHIP should drop along with it.

While Hudson has seen an increase in his walk rate to go along with his increased K rate, Kennedy has been able to better both ratios. This has jumped his K/BB from a perfectly respectable mark of 2.44 in 2010 to a higher class at 3.31 this season. That’s a better mark than established stars like Josh Beckett, King Felix or Justin Verlander. Kennedy has also seen an uptick in his GB/FB ratio, though unlike Hudson, Kennedy is also allowing a higher percentage of line drives. There is nothing in his profile that screams out that his start to the season has been incredibly fluky, as while his BABIP is a bit lower than normal, it’s also within his 2010 range. Kennedy’s contact percentages have also been the same as last year, but he is also getting more swings on balls out of the zone, as well as more swinging strikes.

ZiPS forecasts a mild regression for both pitchers, both of their ZiPS (U) FIP marks are more than a half-run lower than their initial forecasts. In addition, both have been quite consistent. Each has thrown five straight quality starts, and nine of the ten starts logged positive WPA’s, with a -.011 start from Hudson being the lone exception. Both had quality stretches in the past, and they have each had one blow-up a piece so far (Kennedy was one of the victims during Lance Berkman Week) so they still need to show this consistency for a little while longer before all doubts can be squelched, but so far, so good.

While the jumps in performance from Hudson and Kennedy have been somewhat unexpected, the real surprise has been Josh Collmenter. A righty with an unorthodox, over the top delivery, Collmenter was not one of the D-backs top 10 prospects this offseason, but he shot up through the system last year, and reached the Majors for the first time when Aaron Heilman hit the disabled list. He started in the bullpen, but was moved to the rotation when Armando Galarraga struggled mightily. Collmenter is essentially a two-pitch guy, and neither pitch is going to blow anyone’s doors off. He’s been called gimmicky, and part of the reason for that label is his release point. Unlike most pitchers, who throw from definitively in one horizontal quadrant or the other, Collmenter comes right down the middle of the axis. Think Hideki Okajima without the violent neck snap. This delivery is confounding hitters at the moment, as he has 12 scoreless innings to his credit as a starter, and ian racking them up broke a D-backs record.

The 25-year-old Collmenter has maintained a very nice 12 mph difference between his fastball and changeup, and has kept hitters off-balance. Last night, the Braves hit several foul pop-ups that fell harmlessly into D-back gloves. But once people see his release point a couple of times, his luck may run out. Last season, as Collmenter climbed the organizational ladder, so did his walk rate, finishing up at 4.06 BB/9 in Triple-A. He is also sporting a .155 BABIP, which is likely unsustainable. He is generating a lot of swings and misses, and swings on pitches outside of the zone, but just as Okajima has had trouble keeping hitters off balance over time, so too may Collmenter, especially considering how straight most of his offerings. For now though, he has been a great success story, the kind that make baseball fun to watch. Furthermore, his being made a starter is in itself a victory. They could have simply kept running Barry Enright and Galarraga out every fifth day, and wallowed in their sub-replacementy goodness. Instead, they sought to proactively replace them with Collmenter. If they can continue apply this approach, and pry themselves free of veteran dead weight like Joe Saunders and Zach Duke, they will finish the season with a better understanding of just how many holes need to be filled come next offseason.

The D-backs still have work to do. Hudson and Kennedy have been great, and Collmenter has been a nice surprise, but on a team level, their good work has been almost completely undone by Saunders, Enright and Galarraga. If they still had Haren they might have one of the best rotations in the National League, but after last season’s abominable performance, at least the Snakes have some reasons to be hopeful.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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